Yes, you are entitled to your opinion

18:52, Oct 22 2012

Actually, you ARE entitled to your opinion. No matter how many well-meaning souls might suggest otherwise, your personal take on any one issue is just as important as the next person's. Doesn't necessarily make it as credible, laudable or even as understandable, but it is just as important. Healthy, even. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, no matter how ignorant or ill-informed it might be, if only so that it can be exposed as such.

Stating the bleedin' obvious? I would have thought so. But ever since Aussie philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes wrote his widely published opinion piece, "Actually, you're NOT entitled to your opinion", people have been tripping over themselves to support him. Newspapers have even based editorials on it, smugly agreeing that the views of enthusiastic amateurs shouldn't be allowed to challenge what they call the findings of "experts".

Had to laugh over this. I mean, really: what's a newspaper editorial if not the opinion of enthusiastic amateurs, often contradicting the advice of more qualified parties. And the idea that we should all just sit quietly and wait for the experts to tell us how to live would also be hilarious - if it wasn't so bloody frightening. Thanks, but no thanks. As Bertrand Russell once said, "even when all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken".

Then there's the issue of understanding the experts. I'm happy to confess I have no true, working comprehension of the debate over man-made climate change. Same goes for the finer points of modern nuclear power generation, or genetically-modified food. Yet I do have an opinion on all these matters, based on the little I can get my head around, and my own convictions and concerns. Should it count for anything? No, not at all. But neither does it make it unworthy.

Anyway, can we always trust the experts? Few seem to be truly independent; in fact, many are funded by organisations with an interest in the outcome of their research. Experts have been known to lie and mislead, using manipulated data to baffle us with bullshit. We've justified wars on this basis. We've killed people with tobacco on this basis. To be urged to simply accept theories because they come from experts isn't just stupid, it's dangerous.

Mr Stokes and his disciples have made much of the notion that, unless you can prove or convincingly argue your case, you're not entitled to your opinion. I wonder how that might go down with the church-goers and deeply religious amongst us, who base many of their opinions (same-sex marriage, abortion, homosexuality) on the existence of an unprovable God. Would love to be a fly on the wall when they were told their opinions didn't count.

As someone was remarking the other day, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who knew a little more about scientific theory than your average Joe Bloggs, had an interesting take on his industry. "Science", he said, "is the belief in the ignorance of experts". In other words, never stop asking questions, and never stop demanding answers. Plenty of enthusiastic amateurs have made breakthroughs; plenty of experts have made mistakes.

It's hard to know what Mr Stokes and supporters of his viewpoint are concerned about. Certainly, the scientific community are well known for welcoming criticism; robust debate often assists in proving or debunking a particular conclusion. Silly objections are, presumably, easily countered, and therefore less likely to take root as popular myth. And if they're not so easily countered, then maybe they're not so silly after all.

What we've been told is that, unless we can disprove the findings of establishment experts, we should keep our mouths shut and keep our opinions to ourselves. The corollary of that is we should accept all expert advice and information as true and right, no questions asked.

Don't know about you but, bugger that for a joke.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
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